With workplaces becoming more relaxed everyday, business casual is an increasingly common dress code. However, despite its seemingly open invitation to wear whatever you want, there seem to be many unwritten rules.
Over 12,000 people a month do a Google search for “what is business casual”. For such a ubiquitous dress code, it’s frustrating that there isn’t a clear consensus on what the phrase actually means. If anything, “business casual” is just as oxymoronic as “hot cold” or “hardcore relaxation.”
Larger corporations will sometimes avoid any mistakes by making their dress code clear. However, some smaller companies leave it open to interpretation. Furthermore, it’s becoming the norm for events and occasions to be classed as “business casual”.
See All Our Dress Code Guides
This article will discuss, at length, the modern office worker’s most liberating and frustrating dress code: business casual.
Can you wear a tie in a business casual office? Are sneakers okay? Does anyone really look good in khakis and a polo? Read on to find out.
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Forget trial and error. Follow our guide to know exactly what falls under business casual!
History & Meaning Of Business Casual
If we think of a decade with which business casual is associated, that would be the 1990’s. For better or worse, the 90’s were a period of sartorial détente where previously hard-line standards became somewhat more flexible. However, the more formally-minded may have struggled during this particular decade.
To get to the roots of business casual, however, we have to go back to Hawaii in 1962.
Casual Fridays Were Originally Aloha Fridays
What we know as a Hawaiian shirt is called an Aloha shirt in Hawaii. These shirts are ultra-casual on the mainland, but in Hawaii they’re actually considered dress clothes appropriate for business and government. Given that the state’s hot climate makes wearing a suit and tie completely impractical, this makes sense.
In 1962, the Hawaiian Fashion Guild (a professional manufacturing association) began promoting these shirts for use in the workplace as a way to support the state’s garment industry. The Guild undertook “Operation Liberation,” wherein two Aloha shirts were distributed to every member of the Hawaii House of Representatives and the Hawaii Senate. The Senate passed a resolution recommending that Aloha attire be worn in the summer months.
Three years later, the president of the HFG led a campaign to introduce “Aloha Friday” to the state’s companies, wherein employers would allow employees to wear Aloha shirts on Fridays for a few months out of the year. By 1970, it was acceptable any day of the week in Hawaii and had spread east to California.
By the 1990’s, the term “Casual Friday” had been born and business casual dug in its heels.
Business Casual & The Dress-Down 1990’s
As mentioned above, the sartorial horizon of the 1990s was somewhat more relaxed. Comfort was the rule of the day before all else, and business casual was naturally at home in such an environment.
While suits were oversized and ugly, business casual garb of the time followed suit, with the most egregious offender being the pleated khakis and polo shirt combination.
Our feeling is that business casual got much of its bad rap specifically because it was prominent in the 1990s. During a time that celebrated baggy clothes and square-toed shoes, casually-dressed men almost had no choice but to dress in burlap sacks with collars and cuffs.
How To Build A Business Casual Wardrobe
A wardrobe stocked with business-casual appropriate items is actually reasonably easy to build, you just need to be strategic.
A couple of good sport coats are the bedrock of a business casual dress code. Throw them on when you’re feeling more business than casual, and definitely when you have meetings. Any option will look best with a simple notch lapel, two- or three-button single-breasted stance.
- All-season navy blue sport coat (a blazer is also an option, though the gold buttons are a bit much for some guys)
- All-season grey sport coat
Business-Casual Shirts & Sweaters
Shirts are where you can really have some fun. Any classic color will do, and you can really jazz things up with bold patterns, button-down collars, etc.
Remember that white shirts are the most formal you can get. A great way to stock your business casual shirt collection is to look for patterned shirts with white as a base color. A pink and blue tattersall shirt is a lot of fun, but you get a bit more “business” out of it if that pattern is on a white background.
- 7-10 button-down shirts in any color that looks good on you. White and blue are standard, but don’t be afraid to branch out into pink, purple, green, or any color combination thereof.
- Button-down collars are casual, regular spread collars work well too.
- Stick to barrel cuffs, avoid French cuffs.
- 5-6 merino or cashmere sweaters in V-neck, crew, or cardigan styles. Grey, blue, and black are great starting points.
- For warmer weather, 5-7 short sleeve polo shirts in similar color schemes to your button-downs.
Keep a range of dress slacks and casual trousers in the rotation so you’re well-prepped for Monday meetings or Casual Friday.
- 2-4 pairs of casual trousers: navy, grey, and yes, khaki are all great to have on hand.
- 2-4 pairs of dress pants: navy, grey, taupe, or medium blue are good starting points.
- 1-3 pairs of dark, neither-skinny-nor-baggy, whiskering- and hole-free jeans
Black oxfords are a bit too dressy for a business casual office.
Mix it up a bit with a few of the following options:
- Medium brown derbies
- Suede brogues
- Tan loafers
- Black chukka boots
- A pair of “fashion” sneakers in a color that isn’t neon or otherwise crazy, for very casual days
Men’s Business Casual Outfit Examples & General Tips
First, some ground rules:
- Casual is not the same as sloppy. You still need to get your clothes tailored, and you still need to practice good grooming. Your color game must be on point, and you must still dress in a way that’s sympathetic to your body type and face shape.
- Your clothes and shoes must be in good repair. Shine your shoes. Get rips and stains taken care of. You’re an adult, you got this.
- Sneakers are okay in a pinch. Athletic sneakers are no good, period. “Fashion” sneakers can work but only if your office is on the very casual end of business casual. Regardless, a better bet is to wear any other casual shoe like driving loafer, boat shoe, or suede derby. Avoid wearing a suit with sneakers. As much as some may claim that it’s a good look, clients may perceive it as a faux pas.
- When in doubt, err towards formality. This is particularly true if you’re starting a new job but the statement applies too if you’re client-facing or have a big meeting, for example.
Generally speaking, just use common sense. If the other guys in the office are wearing sport coats and trousers, don’t be the dude showing up in khakis and a polo shirt. If they’re wearing dress denim and button-downs, perhaps a double-breasted blazer with gold buttons is overdoing it.
It’s fair to treat business casual outfits as if they existed on a continuum, with casual on one end and business on the other. Your outfit will fall somewhere on this continuum and will inevitably be more casual than business, or vice-versa.
Much of an outfit’s status as dressy or casual hinges on a confluence of factors, the three most important of which are the presence or absence of:
- Sport coats
- Jeans vs. trousers
- Dress shirts versus sweaters or polo shirts
Check out the photos below of some of our preferred business casual outfits:
Business-Casual Suit With No Tie
The British don’t do business casual the way Americans to business casual, and their lives are much easier as a result. Put on a suit and ditch the tie. Done.
Business-Casual Blazer & Khakis
With or without a tie, a blue blazer and khakis (or any odd jacket and trouser combination) is a great way to retain a bit of formality without being stuffy. You may opt for a tie or not with a combination like this.
Business-Casual Tie & Trousers
Omitting the jacket but keeping the tie is an effective way to maintain sartorial professionalism but keep things casual enough to appear like you’re not overdoing it. Removing the tie will make things more casual but will still be appropriate for most business casual environments.
Khakis & Polo Shirt
If your chinos and polo shirt fit well, you’ll look good in an outfit like this. Remember: no pleats on the chinos, and no sports or company insignia on the polo. You might golf, but wearing a golf shirt may be perceived as boastful at the office.
Business-Casual Jeans & Sport Coat
Once we bring jeans into the mix, we are officially on the casual side of business casual. Your jeans must be in good repair, well-fitted, have minimal whiskering, and not have holes, pre-made or otherwise. Pairing “dress denim” with a sport coat is common, and this can be done easily with a dress shirt or a merino or cashmere sweater depending on the temperature.
Business-Casual Jeans & Sweater & / Or Shirt
We are now in casual territory. Very casual offices will allow this look, especially if you stick to classic patterns like the argyle sweater above.
You either work for an office that has no dress code or are literally at the beach. If you are at the beach, stop working (unless you’re a coast guard).
Business Casual In The Future: Will It Continue Its Reign?
That we’re living in an ultra-casual world isn’t up for debate, it’s simply the truth. Sadly, a lot of men think it appropriate to wear athletic sneakers to a fancy dinner, and the lines from week to weekend have been blurred.
With that said, we’re definitely seeing a return to an appreciation for tailored clothing and improved fit. We are casual, but not contemptuous of at least some formality.
Business casual is here to stay because it’s comfortable. Once you actually have a grasp of the concepts, it actually makes your life much easier as you can strategically dress to go from work to dinner, the bar, or wherever else.